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Nearly four years ago, the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies (VES) was faced with some difficult decisions.
After being handed a long list of recommendations by Dean for Undergraduate Education Lawrence Buell and a special advisory committee that Buell had assembled for the purpose of reviewing VES, the department had to make some changes.
Originally composed of three different tracks--film, studio arts and design--the 1993 committee recommended that the design track "beyond the elementary level be largely if not entirely recruited from the Graduate School of Design [GSD]," and that the department focus on the remaining tracks.
"One of the things the department was criticized for, and rightly so, was that it tried to do too many things too broadly," says Ellen Phelan, professor of studio arts and acting chair of the department.
Phelan, who did not receive a copy of the Buell committee report until six months ago, says the direction in which she has steered the department is in line with the committee's vision.
"I was amazed at how many of the changes I've made reflected the recommendations of the Buell committee," Phelan says. "But the committee's recommendations were all so sensible."
Phelan, who is also director of the Carpenter Center, says that in the time she has been at Harvard she has seen the studio arts track and cooperation within the department grow.
"We've tried to create a more cohesive program of beginning, intermediate and advanced courses, particularly in the studio arts," Phelan says.
Elimination of Design
But while the department may have succeeded in meeting the committee's recommendations, the design track has been lost in the process.
"The department has since then developed film and studio arts, but the GSD has not been forthcoming in doing what the committee recommended," says Alfred F. Guzzetti, a professor of Visual and Environmental Studies.
But Phelan argues that an understanding between VES and the GSD may never have existed.
"It was a recommendation from an outside committee," Phelan says. "They had all thought it would be reasonable to think that architecture-based classes would more logically be picked up [by the GSD]. I don't know if anyone was consulted or if anything was agreed upon."
Phelan explains the GSD doesn't have a basic design course suitable for undergraduates.
"We were teaching design in the normal sense--vocabulary and the language of the visual and spatial--but it had gotten to the point where all roads led to architecture, and all roads don't lead to architecture."
Such changes have inevitably had an effect on the department and its concentrators.
"Those that have been disenfranchised are the design people," says Robb Moss, senior preceptor and VES head tutor. "For those people in the department, it's been very disappointing."
Guzzetti says some students may not have been prepared for the changes.
"Sometimes these things happen without the consciousness of Harvard students," Guzzetti says. "The worst is for those people who expected to major in design and saw it vanish from under their feet."
But Moss says that VES faculty have been flexible in offering students the design courses they want to take.
"They've had to go searching," Moss says, explaining that some students have found courses to take at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or the GSD. "It has certainly been disappointing for people whose pure interest was the part of the department that was lost."
"We're in a transition, and by necessity, that's a bit bumpy," Moss adds. "But it's producing vitality in the department."
Moss says he is enthusiastic about the diversity of programs he now sees in the studio arts track, and he describes the film/video track as stable.
Moss adds that the number of concentrators did not seem to be affected by the elimination of the design track.
Presently, there are 88 concentrators in the department, an increase from the 72 concentrators in the 1995-1996 school year and the 77 concentrators in the 1994-1995 school year.
Guzzetti says that it is hard to know if the department has lost potential concentrators due to the elimination of the design track since the department could have just as easily gained other concentrators attracted by the recent emphasis on film and studio arts.
Moss says that based on a recent survey of first-years, 51 students expressed interest in the department.
"The faculty are approachable and exciting to be around," says Timothy D. Hirzel '00, who took an introductory drawing class last term and is currently enrolled in a photography class. "They seem interested in teaching."
Hirzel, who is taking VES 160: "Modernization in the Visual United States Environment" and VES 40ar: "Fundamentals of Still Photography" (see story, this page), says the content of his classes makes VES attractive.
"My classes are concerned with seeing and training yourself to see things you wouldn't see before," says Hirzel, who is also considering a concentration in biology. "The ability to notice and see makes both good science and good art."
Similar experiences with the friendliness of the department have left Alex H. Gourevitch '00 certain he wants to concentrate in VES.
"I really like the teachers; they seem laid-back and friendly," Gourevitch says. "The students seem friendly. They're creative and intelligent."
However, students also say that their interest in VES has developed since they have been at Harvard.
"If I wanted to study painting as an undergraduate, I should be at a painting school," says James S.F. Wilson '00, who has tentatively decided to concentrate in English.
"Harvard's not really an art school," Wilson says. "Harvard probably has better resources for studying English than painting."
Wilson says the English department has the added benefit of many long-term professors.
In VES "there are many visiting professors which is good because you are exposed to different things, but it's not like the English department where you can build a rapport," Wilson adds.
"For someone like me with an interest in the department, the visiting professors are great because they provide exposure to different things," Wilson says.
Friendliness Without Rapport
Wilson's enthusiasm for VES courses taught by visiting professors is not atypical among students.
"Right now, we may have too many [visiting lectures] but it's exciting. All the classes are oversubscribed," Phelan says. "A lot of people within the University would really like to take an art class. If there's a demand, we should try to meet it."
Phelan says this despite the Buell committee recommendation that the department recruit senior professors in photography and the studio arts.
"We've done that, but it's terribly difficult," Guzzetti says. "The people you want to attract are not pursuing careers in academia. You have to identify these people and persuade them that this is something they want to do."
The committee also recommended that the department "diversify the teaching of film and photography, to compensate for its present bias toward machine-produced art of a documentary character."
But Guzzetti defends the department's approach to the track.
"We are not a film school," Guzzetti says. "For them to reduce it to documentary film--they didn't do their homework."
But some students with experience in the department disagree.
"I was interested in film and photography, but they don't encourage photography outside of documentary," says one Adams House junior who has since switched concentrations from VES to English. "They're not into experimental or more creative things."
She also says the costs that come with buying materials for VES courses are too high.
"I spent about $60 to $70 that I just didn't have on a final project for a studio class last semester," she says. "They don't really lay it out for you at the beginning and say this is how much money you have to spend so that you can lay out your project within these limits."
But other VES concentrators disagree.
"I started out doing painting, and it was pretty expensive, but film is great," Irene E. Lusztig '96 says. "They have a really generous budget, even better than film school."
Phelan says that VES remains committed to subsidizing students despite the strain on the department's budget.
"It's a noble ideal and, in principle, I support it, but it's also a logistical nightmare," Phelan says.
Nightmare or not, this departmental feature makes VES attractive to potential concentrators.
"To make a move, that costs thousands of dollars," Hirzel says, adding that the funding is enough to keep him in the department.
The Buell committee also wanted VES to take better advantage of art resources within Harvard and the larger art world, a recommendation that concentrators agreed with.
"There needs to be better dialogue between what we're doing in the classroom and what we're making," the junior says. "The visiting artists program is great because they stress what's going on in the art world today. It gives you something to think about."
Lusztig says that Phelan has stressed the importance of the visiting artists program. "[Phelan] is really into fluid, nonacademic contact with people who know what's going on in the art world," Lusztig says. "The downside though is that you really can't work with one person for a long time. They're great to work with, but it's hard when they're gone."
Overall, Phelan says she is pleased with the changes that have taken place within VES.
"We're working more cooperatively as a department with intersecting interest than we have ever had before," Phelan says.
--David A. Fahrenthold contributed to the reporting of this story.
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